Tea Leaf Nation

Meet China's Swaggering, 'Diehard' Criminal Lawyers

They don't scare easily, and they will take any client -- not just dissidents. The Communist Party has noticed.

If there were a checklist for China's "diehard lawyers faction" it would probably read something like this: Must be combative, dramatic, and have a flair for social media; must not be intimidated by authority; and must be willing to spend time under house arrest or in jail.

While there is no official group by this name, the term has evolved over the last few years to describe a particular type of criminal defense lawyer: brash, and determined to take on defendants whose rights, the attorneys believe, have been violated. The phenomenon came into sharp relief after the arrest of prominent Beijing lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (pictured above) on May 6 for allegedly "picking quarrels" by commemorating the victims of the June 4, 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen square in central Beijing. Pu remains in detention in Beijing, awaiting a hearing.

It all started with a case gone awry. Beijing lawyer Yang Xuelin, who identifies himself on social media website Weibo as a "diehard," told Communist Party mouthpiece newspaper People's Daily that the term originated from a discussion with another attorney in Guiyang, the capital of Southern China's Guizhou province, in July 2012. Yang and a colleague named Chi Susheng were part of a team of lawyers from around China who had come to the city to defend a former property tycoon accused of gang-related crimes. Over lunch on the first day of the trial, the paper explained, Chi complained the trial was already not going well. It was riddled with procedural problems, she said, and the team was going to have to "firmly fight to the bitter end," using the northern slang term sike -- which roughly means to fight to the bitter end, or to die hard. (The tycoon was sentenced to 15 years in prison.)

Since then, the term has been adopted by the lawyers themselves and become a convenient shorthand widely used by media and even Chinese authorities. On May 8, reliably nationalist outlet Global Times branded Pu as a member of this loosely defined faction in an editorial that argued Pu had "crossed the line" by attending a Tiananmen commemoration. (Pu, who took part in the 1989 demonstrations, has in fact commemorated them every year since.) The article also excoriated other so-called diehards. "These activist lawyers, who have wild intentions to challenge and change the law, have deviated" from what their jobs are supposed to entail, the editorial wrote. It leveled a warning at the group, who must "realize that they are not commandos or the authoritative forces" behind improvements to rule of law in China.

The commando metaphor is one both sides have embraced. An attorney from Xuchang, a small city in central China's Henan province, wrote on his blog that a diehard lawyer was someone who "goes deep into the mountains knowing well that there are tigers there." The tigers, he clarified, are officials, and not just any officials. In many of the cases championed by diehards, the corruption or abuse of power has been at the police or court level. In some cases, that means the tigers are the judges.

Many crusading Chinese attorneys have landed behind bars or been disbarred (or both) for defending marginalized groups which include practitioners of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong, Chinese Christians, or political dissidents. But those in the diehard faction do not necessarily focus their practice on dissidents. They take cases where legal rights are being flouted, regardless of the client. Their opponent is the court establishment, namely the police and even the judge. This adversarial stance has caught the attention of China's second highest justice. "We are now seeing a very strange phenomenon," wrote Shen Deyong, the executive vice-president of the Supreme People's Court, China's highest court, in a May 2013 essay published in the Communist Party-run People's Court Daily. "[Defense] lawyers are not in a confrontation with prosecutors, but instead are having confrontations with the presiding judge in the case," he complained.

That combative attitude is part of what makes a diehard lawyer -- so is showmanship. In a July 2011 murder trial in prefecture-level southern city of Beihai -- in which the victim was allegedly stabbed, but the autopsy found no stab wounds -- four of the defense attorneys who worked on the case were detained. One of them, Yang Zaixin, was jailed for nine months and then held under house arrest for six months for alleged witness tampering. (The charges were later dropped.) Yang's Weibo profile picture shows him posing on the enclosed balcony of the apartment where he was kept under house arrest, his fists up in the air like a winning boxer. Later, during the Guiyang trial, Chi, the lawyer who first coined the diehard moniker, collapsed as the judge tried to eject her from the courtroom and was taken to the hospital.

Diehard lawyers are also heavy users of social media, which allows them to stay in touch with each other and to advocate for their clients. Most, including Chi and Pu, have blogs or social media accounts and post frequently (though Pu's blog has been shut down). The constant posting means that plenty of inter-faction diehard squabbling, about what makes a diehard and whether membership should be formalized, also ends up online. Disputes aside, this is part of what makes this group a potential threat in the eyes of the Chinese government: Their refusal to keep a low profile and their potential influence on public opinion. An April 9 article posted to the website of the influential Communist Party journal Seeking Truth complained that diehard lawyers were "disrupting social order and undermining public safety," and called them a "poisonous cancer" on society.

The Chinese government is clearly worried about the so-called diehards’ impact, and is moving to trim it. Jerome Cohen, a professor of law at New York University, told Foreign Policy that the government is responding with an “increasingly repressive policy” that is trying to rein in the legal profession. Pu’s detention, Cohen said, is part of that movement. Although Pu is also considered part of the weiquan or "rights defense" school of lawyering and has represented dissidents like the activist artist Ai Weiwei, Pu straddles factions. And the repression isn't faction-specific.

Cohen said Chinese authorities are clamping down because they “want lawyers to behave like dentists.” In other words, the government thinks attorneys should be "good technicians and not involve themselves in cases of political-legal injustice.” But Cohen added that the crackdowns like that which ensnared Pu are only growing the ranks of “angry lawyers” in China, causing more to take up rights-related cases.

The outpouring of support for Pu on social media, from words of support to photos of him, does suggest that instead of weakening lawyers of his type, it is emboldening them. Another practitioner, Xu Tianming, wrote on Weibo that the "wanton arrest" of Pu would not work. The government should "not think that saying it diligently serves the people over and over" is enough. "In the Internet age," Xu concluded, "the people are their own masters."  

Tea Leaf Nation

Is China the Fastest-Rising Power in History?

Four graphs show how China stacks up against the powers of yesterday.

China is rising; but how far, and how fast? After the release of projections based on new World Bank data showing that China will soon overtake the United States as the world's largest national economy, a debate has quickly ensued, with some China-watchers dismissing the new figures as an "accounting exercise" and others calling the revised data a "wake-up call." But the hue and cry obscures a more fundamental question: whether the scale and speed of China's ascendance is truly unique, or whether it resembles the emergence of earlier powers. China, it turns out, scores moderately on the first metric, and very highly on the second.

Although new powers have emerged for millennia -- think Athens after the Greek victory over Persia in 479 B.C. and Rome in 264 B.C. at the start of its wars with Carthage -- extensive data measuring the scale and speed of a nation's rise only extend from the mid-19th century to the present. During this period, five states have emerged as global powers:

  • The United States, circa 1870: Having recovered from a devastating civil war, it entered a period of rapid industrial growth and overseas expansion.
  • Germany, circa 1870: Otto von Bismarck defeated France and established a unified nation.
  • The Soviet Union, circa 1945: The USSR grew into a superpower in the aftermath of World War II.
  • Japan, circa 1960: A high-growth era dawned that took Japan to the commanding heights of the global economy.
  • China, circa 1982: Its rise began after the ruling Communist Party completed its sixth five-year plan, a document the party still uses to help guide the economy, inaugurating a new era of economic reform and opening to foreign trade.

Of course, no country's ascent had a single, undisputed starting point. But cutoffs are necessary to gauge a rise or a fall, and the above inflection points are apt candidates. Here's how China's shares of global GDP, trade, and military spending compare with that of the other four powers, 30 years into their respective ascents (click any image below to enlarge):

In sheer scale, China remains near the head of the pack on several measures, but it is not yet a clear front-runner. After three decades of ascent, China's economic footprint is comparable to that of the United States in 1900. China currently accounts for 14.6 percent of world output, while the U.S. share of global GDP in 1900 was 15.9 percent. At 14.3 percent, China's share of global commerce is about a percentage point higher than the United States' at the same stage of its rise. Militarily, China resembles Germany before it developed the powerful navy that new wealth afforded. Thirty years in, China's share of global military spending -- 9.2 percent -- is just behind Germany's share in 1900, at 10.5 percent. Of the comparison group, the Soviet Union's rise differs most from China's. The USSR prioritized military strength over economic prosperity, and the numbers show it. In 1975, the Soviet Union accounted for about a third of international military spending, but only 9.4 percent of global output and a measly 3.9 percent of world trade, due to its isolation from the global economy.

Speed is where China stands out. In 30 years of ascent, starting from a low base, it has come farther, faster than any of the other rising powers in the comparison group. Here's a look at its GDP growth, in historical context: 

(Trend lines for Germany and the United States are interpolated due to limited GDP data. Data for the USSR's share of global GDP begins in 1950.)

China has expanded its share of world GDP faster than any other rising state from 1870 to today. When then-leader Deng Xiaoping inaugurated a series of sweeping economic reforms in 1982, China accounted for a mere 2.2 percent of global output. Thirty years later, in 2012, China produced 14.6 percent of the world's GDP, a roughly sevenfold increase. Notably, other powers at the start of their rise began with a much more substantial share of world GDP: 6.5 percent for Germany in 1870, 7.1 percent for Japan in 1960, 8.9 percent for the United States in 1870, and 9.6 percent for the Soviet Union in 1950. Of those four, only the United States nearly doubled its share of global output during three decades of ascent. Although considered an industrial powerhouse at the time, Germany only managed to increase its share of world GDP by a few percentage points, while the Soviet Union's 30-year share remained virtually unchanged through 1975.

The speed of China's ascent as a trading power is even more impressive: 

(Comparable trade data is unavailable for Japan before 1970. Gaps in the USSR trend line are where outlier data points exist without any clear historical cause.)

China's share of global trade has exploded faster than that of any other rising power in the comparison group. In 30 years, China has expanded its share by a staggering multiple of more than 22. At the dawn of its reform period, China accounted for only 0.6 percent of world commerce; by comparison, the United States at year zero of its rise already conducted 9.3 percent of the world's trade. Germany at the start of its ascent accounted for 10.7 percent of international commerce. Only the Soviet Union at the close of World War II had less of a presence in global trade than China at the outset of its rise.

A different picture emerges when examining the speed of China's military ascent. In line with Deng's belief that China should "hide [its] capacities" and "bide [its] time" -- which meant, in part, getting rich first before building up its military -- China's share of world arms spending has advanced slower than its share of global GDP and trade:

(No comparable data is available for Chinese military expenditures before 1989, or for 1991.)

China's proportion of world military spending has expanded at an objectively rapid clip, even if it has not ballooned as fast as its economic footprint. During the 1990s, and then again during the 2000s, China nearly tripled its share of global military outlays. Pentagon data on China's military spending paints a similar picture, and its 2013 white paper to the U.S. Congress notes that China has the "fiscal strength and political will to support defense spending growth at comparable levels" in the future, though given that "China's published military budget omits several major categories of expenditure," including foreign arms purchases, it's hard to know for sure. The Defense Department estimated that China's total military-related expenditures for 2012 fell between $135 billion and $215 billion, though it cautioned that it didn't know for sure. The next Pentagon white paper is scheduled to be released next week.

Mapped over time, China's share of global military spending has charted an exponential growth path, unusual by historical standards. The Soviet share spiked after World War II and then plateaued at around one-third of global military spending. The U.S. share fluctuated around specific events -- Germany's return to peacetime footing after 1870 caused a temporary increase, while the Spanish-American War of 1898 produced a sharp peak leading into a rapid decline. Germany's share of global military spending expanded and contracted over time, generally remaining between 10 and 15 percent of world spending on arms. Japan increased its share of global military spending throughout, but at a much slower pace than China.

China has risen faster than other powers, but not farther -- yet. Prediction is a risky business. A decline in China's working-age population, widespread environmental degradation, endemic corruption, and risks associated with staggering income inequality -- or some combination of those factors -- could slow or derail the country's rise. But if China can muddle through, conservative estimates put its share of global GDP at 28 percent by 2030. If this forecast is correct, China's economic dominance will, on paper, equal that of the United States in 1951, a peak year in which the residual devastation wrought by World War II significantly boosted America's share of global output. 

Yet China will likely punch below its weight even if these forecasts prove accurate. It took the United States two world wars, a sea change in how the U.S. public viewed the world, and the creation of a new international order backed by a set of military alliances to fully translate its size into global dominance. China's economy may become larger than the United States' this year, but parity on paper will not quickly yield equal influence abroad.

The above graphs draw on the following data sets: Angus Maddison, Historical Statistics for the World Economy: 1–2003 AD; World Bank, World Development Indicators Online; Correlates of War Project Trade Data, Version 2.01; Correlates of War Project, National Material Capabilities Dataset, Version 3.02; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Military Expenditure Database, 2013.